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The Game of Politics

Milwaukee gamers design ‘Swing States 2012’

Sep. 14, 2012
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America is holding its breath until the Nov. 6 presidential election. Meanwhile, we can all have a little fun with the election by playing “Swing States 2012.” Introduced this summer by Victory Point, a California gaming company, “Swing States” is a solitary board game allowing a player—with a lot of luck and a little skill—to overcome potholes on the road to the White House by winning enough of those tough swing states (Wisconsin among them) to secure the Electoral College. “Swing States” was designed by Milwaukeeans Wes Erni and R. Ben Madison. Off the Cuff caught up with the latter over lunch at Oakland Gyros.

How did you begin designing games?

There’s a whole cottage industry of tinkering with rules for war games. Wes and I tinkered with one to the point where we could see it being published. We pitched our redesigned “Global War” to Decision Games in California. Their policy is: If enough people pledge to a particular unpublished game, they will put it into development. It’s been on their pledge list for 10 years.

Meanwhile, we did a game for a small Canadian outfit, Microgame Design Group, called “Byzantium Reborn.” It’s about Greece’s defeat by Turkey after World War I.

Could the Greeks win in “Byzantium Reborn”?

Yes, they could. And a second edition was put out by another Canadian company, Fiery Dragon. We also did a game on the American Civil War, “CSA,” and “Liberia: Descent into Hell”—a game that was controversial.

Why controversial?

There was enough salacious material in the Liberian Civil War to fill an encyclopedia—ritual murder, drug sales for arms. Some people objected, but every detail was true. I’ve never heard a Liberian attacking the game—just their self-appointed defenders.

And then you moved on to a new company, Victory Point?

We originally went to them with a game called “The First Jihad,” about the early Islamic conquests after Mohammad’s death, but in conversation with their development director, Alan Emrich, we decided to focus on an election game. By March of this year we realized it has to get done now! Wes, Alan and I went into a frenzy of activity from March through June. It went from blueprint to production in that time.

Any political arguments?

Alan is right-wing, I’m center-left and Wes is politically innocent. The key components we could all agree on, but the biggest fight was over the title phrases on each card. Should there be a card titled “Judge Finds Voter Suppression in I.D. Law?” Alan and I fought tooth and nail. He thought my titles had a liberal bias. I thought his had a conservative bias.

Is “Swing States” available as a computer game?

It should have been, but there was no time to get it done between conception and election.

Are these kinds of games flourishing?

A whole generation has grown up with role-playing games with dungeons and goblins instead of history. Ironically, even though the audience has diminished, now is a golden age for war games because of the ease by which you can get things printed. There’s a ton of brilliant, affordable games out there…


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